Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn

American Poet, Novelist, Educator

Author Quotes

Your business as a writer is not to illustrate virtue but to show how a fellow may move toward it or away from it.

When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a ham trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can't get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can.

When you get in love you are made all over again. The person who loves you has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time, you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up. So you create yourself by creating another person, who, however, has also created you, picked up the you-chunk of clay out of the mass. So there are two you's, the one you create by loving and the one the beloved creates by loving you. The farther those two you's are apart the more the world grinds and grudges on its axis. But if you loved and were loved perfectly then there wouldn't be any difference between the two you's or any distance between them. They would coincide perfectly, there would be perfect focus, as when a stereoscope gets the twin images on the card into perfect alignment.

Which is nonsense, for whatever you live is Life. That is something to remember when you meet the old classmate who says, Well now, on our last expedition up the Congo- or the one who says, Gee, I got the sweetest little wife and three of the swellest kids ever- You must remember it when you sit in hotel lobbies or lean over bars to talk to the bartender or walk down a dark street at night, in early March, and stare into a lighted window. And remember little Susie has adenoids and the bread is probably burned, and turn up the street, for the time has come to hand me down that walking cane, for I got to catch that midnight train, for all my sin is taken away. For whatever you live is life

Willie went out and buttonholed folks on the street and tried to explain things to them. You could see Willie standing on a street corner, sweating through his seersucker suit, with his hair down in his eyes, holding an old envelope in one hand and a pencil in the other, working out figures to explain what he was squawking about, but folks don't listen to you when your voice is low and patient and you stop them in the hot sun and make them do arithmetic.

You are dehydrated, I said. The result of alcohol taken in excess. But that is the only way to take it. It is the only way to do a man any good.

You can't make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand from the cowpen.

You don't know how much I know or what. I was thick with the Boss and I know a lot. I'm the joker in the deck. My name is Jack and I'm the wild jack and I'm not one-eyed. You want to deal me to yourself from the bottom of the deck. But it's no sale, Tiny, it's no sale.

You don't write poems sitting at a typewriter; you write them swimming or climbing a mountain or walking.

You have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have got to make it out of.

You live through . . . that little piece of time that is yours, but that piece of time is not only your own life, it is the summing-up of all the other lives that are simultaneous with yours. It is, in other words, History, and what you are is an expression of History.

Your breed [Big Jim] ain't metaphysical. The buzzard coughed, His words fell in the darkness, mystic and ambrosial. But we maintain our ancient rite, eat the gods by day and prophesy by night. We swing against the sky and wait; you seize the hour, more passionate than strong, and strive with time to die -- With time, the beaked tribe's astute ally.

What you don't know don't hurt you, for it ain't real. They called that Idealism in my book I had when I was in college, and after I got hold of that principle I became an Idealist. I was a brass-bound Idealist in those days. If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn't real anyway.

Whatever you live is Life.

What is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding? It is the deepest part of autobiography.

What is love? One name for it is knowledge.

What is man but his passion?

What we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.

We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind which become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer of unanswered letters.

We wrote every day, but the letters began to seem like checks drawn on the summer's capital. There had been a lot in the bank, but it is never good business practice to live on your capital, and I had the feeling, somehow, of living on the capital and watching something dwindle.

What glass unwinking gives our trust its image back, what echo names the names we hurl at namelessness?

What if angry vectors veer Round your sleeping head, and form. There's never need to fear Violence of the poor world's abstract storm.

To wake in some dawn and see as though down a rifle barrel, lined up like sights, the self that was, the self that is, and there far off but in range, completing that alignment, your fate.

Upon my return I found the call in my box. It was Anne's number, then Anne's voice on the wire, and, as always, the little leap and plunk in my heart like a frog jumping into a lily pool. With the ripples spreading round.

We are right to see power prestige and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War. But it is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of our mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and road-holding capability. It is to our credit that we survived the War and tempered our national fiber in the process, but human decency and the future security of our country demand that we look at the costs. What are some of the costs?

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Robert Penn
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American Poet, Novelist, Educator